Some state legislators want to spread Northern Virginia's high-tech economy to parts of the state that haven't caught the wave of sustainable new- economy jobs. Great. Spread it to Hampton Roads, which is ready and able.
For political and pragmatic reasons, however, legislators from Northern Virginia's tech-have areas are instead huddling with their colleagues from the tech-have-not areas in Southside Virginia to find ways to transplant the wealth. They're trying to make a connection between the high-tech riches of the Dulles corridor and the old-economy hard times of cities such as Danville.
Too much of a good thing is the reason why.
Northern Virginia can't fill the workforce needs of the high-tech companies that call it home. Unemployment there is a microscopic 1.4 percent, resulting in an estimated 40,000 technology jobs going begging. Meanwhile, unemployment in Southside, where textiles and tobacco once ruled, is three times that.
Politically, Northern Virginia could use some good will from what's traditionally called Southside Virginia - that part of the state below the James River, stretching west along the North Carolina border. Legislators in that mostly rural, mostly conservative part of Virginia seldom find cause to support the highway spending or growth-control laws that win and lose elections in the Washington suburbs.
That's why Loudoun County Del. Joe May and state Technology Secretary Donald Upson recently took a planeload of technology executives on a tour of Southside. And why the tour definitely included a stop in Danville, which is represented by Sen. Charles Hawkins, a member of the Senate's budget-and-tax committee. As Upson said in the Washington Post, "All roads lead to the Senate Finance Committee."
But it's not as simple as waving a magic wand and saying that Southside Virginia should have high- tech businesses. For example, America Online bypassed Danville for a major data center because, in part, it lacked the infrastructure needed to make the $500 million project work.
Which brings us to the point.
Hampton Roads - the Peninsula, in particular - already has the foundation to support a high-tech corridor. Now.
With NASA Langley Research Center, Jefferson Lab and the coming Virginia Advanced Shipbuilding and Carrier Integration Center at Newport News Shipbuilding, the Peninsula boasts the type of technology hub necessary for high-tech businesses to thrive. Workforce development is always an issue - just ask anybody hiring for technology positions - but Hampton Roads has the base to succeed.
For employers that might spin off that Northern Virginia hub, one particular advantage of Hampton Roads should be the availability of potential workers leaving military service with technical skills and leadership training. In addition, office space and housing are relatively cheap and good schools are available. The Peninsula is close to Washington without being part of one of the greatest sprawls on earth and our quality of life is very good indeed.
So, Secretary Upson, look this way when high-tech opportunities spill over from Northern Virginia. Southside Virginia's economy surely needs a boost and high-tech jobs could very well work there - in time. But Hampton Roads is ready now.
Submitted: Thursday, January 4, 2001 - 12:00am